Tips for Navigating the Start of a Thesis/Dissertation

Written by Asma PHD English student

All Readings Matter

At the initial stages when you are doing a literature review, it can be significantly difficult to be reading and not really knowing what to do with all the books and articles you are going through. I had this same experience at the start of my PhD, and every time I found myself following threads of information to other books and articles that did not even seem relevant at the time. What I find now, however, is that everything I read contributed to my understanding of my thesis as a whole.

Note Taking and Keeping Track of References

I think it is really important to keep track of all the resources you check, as it gets difficult to remember everything you read after a couple of years into your PhD. I mostly just use a Word document and copy/paste all titles in there, so it is easy to get back to it later. I have highlighted relevant sections and added notes into the articles I read in PDF form, and that was super helpful when I started drafting my chapters. I have also used a Word document to write down whatever ideas sounded relevant to my chapter from the books I read, and whenever a similar idea emerged in another book/article, I would go back to that section on the Word document and write it under the previous one. This way of taking notes allowed me to have threads of similar ideas and different topics that a chapter could include. Some of these do not necessarily end up in the final draft of the chapter, but I later move them to another Word document of ‘leftover’ ideas that could work better in the next chapter.

Chapter Outlines and Starting Drafts

When writing the actual literature review, I tended to write prose rather than put things into bullet points whenever I could. I had chunks of prose and paragraphs from the note-taking stage that I used as starting points for my chapter drafting. Based on the threads of ideas that emerged in the literature I reviewed, I put initial chapter plans that would guide my drafting. It was never possible to stick to those outlines as they are, but they gave me a sense of direction when I started writing up. I added sections and titles and got rid of others when they did not work. In addition to this, I kept reminding myself that the resources I use for one chapter might not be used ever again in my thesis, so I did the works cited section for each chapter at the stage of drafting. This was honestly one of the best things I did throughout my writing up. When I finished drafting a chapter, I was not worried about remembering all the articles/books I referred to or having to spend a long time going through the chapters and writing down my references.

All Writing and Notes Matter

All in all, it is worth mentioning that I just wrote down ideas no matter how silly or irrelevant they sounded at first. Some of those later proved to be the start of a good comparison, for example, with another author’s ideas. They could provide ground for criticism as well, or they could just be there to encourage you as you see the page has some writing on it and it just helps you go on writing down more relevant stuff.

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